While brain tumors are rarely diagnosed in children, they are the most common form of solid tumors found in those younger than 15.
Gabe knows what it takes to win a car race: he has to have a powerful car, and he has to drive it with forethought and precision. He’s a race winner, after all. He knows that this combination of power and precision also helped him defeat cancer, after he was diagnosed with anaplastic astrocytoma, a brain tumor, when he was 11. While brain tumors are rarely diagnosed in children, they are the most common form of solid tumors found in those younger than 15. All together they represent 20 percent of childhood cancers.
When a brain tumor is found, treatment may include surgery, chemotherapy and/or radiation. Although survival is job one, it is important to consider the treatment’s long-term side effects. Radiation can, for example, damage healthy tissue and contribute to the development of different forms of cancer later in life. It’s important that the medical team weigh a treatment’s side effects and potential harm with its benefits.
Children with brain tumors often are treated with radiation, either with standard (X-ray) radiation or proton therapy. Both types attack tumors by preventing cancer cells from dividing and growing.
“The fundamental property of X-rays,” says Dr. Ramesh Rengan, the medical director of Seattle Cancer Care Alliance Proton Therapy Center, “is that they go in one side and they come out the other. That rule changes with protons. With protons, we have the ability to deliver a therapy that enters but does not exit. It stops where we want it to stop.”
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With proton radiation therapy, the width and depth of the beam can be targeted more precisely to ensure maximum exposure to the tumor with minimal damage to healthy tissue. This is important for multiple reasons. First, less radiation exposure means the child is less likely to develop a new cancer later in life. It also means that doctors are more likely to be able to protect other sensitive parts of the brain – parts that, if damaged, could lead to vision impairment, hearing loss or other complications.
Loss of hearing was a real concern for Gabe. “If Gabe had conventional radiation,” Jake Tesch, Gabe’s dad says, “or anything but the proton radiation, I don’t think he would be able to do the things he’s doing now. His ears would have been affected which effects his sense of balance. And, it would have done damage to his eyesight. The neurologists were really concerned all through his treatment that he would not have the physical abilities of a normal boy when he was done. Now he’s a top-performing athlete.”
Gabe, now 15, races go-carts in his hometown of Spokane and recently set the record for the all-time fastest lap in his class.
With results like this it’s not a surprise that proton therapy has become the preferred treatment option for many children with brain tumors. And, in the Pacific Northwest we are lucky enough to have access to one of the only proton therapy centers in the western part of the United States.
“There are many instances,” Dr. Rengan says, “where pediatric doctors at other hospitals reach out on behalf of their patients so they can get protons. I’m really proud of the partnerships we’ve formed with those pediatric cancer doctors throughout the West, including Angela Trobaugh-Lotrario, M.D., at Providence Sacred Heart Children’s Hospital in Spokane, who referred Gabe.”
“After we got done with all this treatment,” Jake says, “We asked Gabe what he wanted to do and Gabe said he wanted to be a professional racecar driver. We kind of chuckled, but he said ‘God didn’t get me through cancer so I could do something normal. He got me through cancer so I could do something amazing with my life. I want to be a professional racecar driver.’ ”
SCCA Proton Therapy Center uses precisely targeted radiation to treat cancer while preserving surrounding healthy tissue and reducing the potential for side effects. Protons are beneficial in treating patients with a broad range of tumors, including brain, breast, lung and prostate.